big girl ellis

Olivia Cothren graduated from the Cooperstown Graduate Program and now works at the Historic House Trust in New York City. The Historic House Trust has begun to discuss ways to make museums and historic houses more accessible to the public. I felt many of the ideas in this discussion also reflect issues libraries face. Below are some questions I asked Olivia about increasing public engagement in museums and libraries and the role of students in this process.  

The Anarchist Guide to House Museums is a Twitter and Linked-In conversation led by the Historic House Trust to address and change the perception that museums are “boring…socially out of touch… and expensive.” I think these are perceptions that some people apply to libraries too. Why do you think this is a persistent perception of museums and libraries?

I think the common link between museums and libraries here is the way that they have traditionally been operated.  Historically, museums and libraries were characterized by what you couldn’t do inside them. Museums: “don’t touch.”  Libraries: “don’t talk.”  This culture of “don’t” still affects public perception, although I’d argue that libraries have come much farther in this regard than museums.  Broadening collections to include multimedia items, offering computer access, wi-fi and public classes — when my local library instituted these changes 10 or 15 years ago, it had a huge impact in my hometown.  The library became a great community resource by responding to the evolving needs of its local citizens.  Many libraries have been able to cultivate this kind of community identity by being open to change.  Museums strive for this as well, but have had more limited success.  Historic houses usually lag even farther behind.  I think the only way to change public perception is to actively seek input from visitors–or even better, people who are not yet visiting you–to figure out what they want and need and then use that information as a guide to building a more public-minded institution.
What are your favorite or most interesting ideas about increasing community engagement that have arisen from the Anarchist Guide to House Museums conversation?

The best ideas about community engagement are often the simplest.  Having visitors post sticky-notes with their opinions around the house museum, hosting legislative breakfasts for elected officials, encouraging instead of banning our visitors’ use of cell phones and cameras to increase social media presence, partnering with local  non-arts organizations, transforming one room in a historic house into a community room to host local events — all of these are great ideas and none are particularly difficult to actually do.  It’s the willingness to change and time constraints that are often the greater hurdles.  But it’s been very encouraging to hear about successful community engagement efforts in our Anarchist discussions.One of the concerns I saw voiced on the Linked-In discussion was that this approach could turn a historic house tour into a “circus” and take away from the museum’s main job to educate the public. This concern has been in echoed in the New York City Public Library, where there is worry that plans to renovate the main public library building will change the library from a renowned research institution to a social space more like an internet cafe or coffee shop. How should we balance traditional approaches to museums and libraries with other more radical approaches?

I’m not as familiar with the library field, but visitation to historic house has been on a steep decline for years.  Traditionalists can try to stall change or criticize modern updates, but the obvious truth is that our methods have been failing.  What is the point of preserving a building or a collection if no one comes to see or use it?  Museums and libraries can’t just operate in a vacuum or a time capsule and expect to thrive; we need to evolve along with our community.  In our Anarchist Guide, we call for a holistic re-evaluation of historic house museums and question even fundamental tenets of the field.  I might not be the best person to ask about balance between the traditional and the radical because I don’t really think of anything as too radical anymore!  I’m sure the growth of e-readers/death of print “problem” is old hat to you library folks and it seems like it is inspiring a similar field-wide reassessment of your place in society from here on out.  To me, the new NYPL plans present a logical and useful new future for the library.  It’s unfortunate that people are opposing making it a more public place that more people will be able to use?

In some ways it seems students are in a unique position to change traditional perceptions of museums and libraries. In what ways can Museum Studies and GLIS students positively influence change and innovation?

This is so true!  In terms of community engagement, we “know better” than our predecessors.  We’re lucky to be educated in a time when museums and libraries are looking deep within themselves and questioning the legitimacy of basic foundations of our fields in today’s increasingly complex and diverse society.  I think social media plays a huge part here.  The younger generation has certainly been leading the way in proving that social media is not just some passing fad but a legitimate source of communication, education, marketing and community engagement.  Blogging was an important part of my graduate curriculum; I think it’s essential that social media continue to play an expanding role in grad programs.  It’s also important to note that students, eager to participate and unburdened by institutional politics, always bring fresh ideas to organizations through internships and special projects.  It often takes that objective student perspective for an institution to realize something about itself, so I think internships have a real weight to them.

What was your favorite Museum Studies class?

All of them?!  Museum school was the best.  In my Research and Fieldwork course, we conducted an oral history interview with a community member.  That was one of my favorite assignments.  I was also obsessed with my American Folk Art class.  Folk art is so democratic — truly “of the people, by the people, for the people.”  Oral history is the same way.  Both make history accessible and shed light on the common American experience.  And that’s basically what it boils down to for museums and libraries: making our holdings accessible to everyone and encouraging discovery.

What do you think? What lessons do libraries and museums have to learn from each other? How can we make ourselves more accessible to our patrons? What is the role students play in this discussion? Join in the conversation-  @hhtnyc,  Anarchist Guide to Museums Historic House LinkedIn page and the HLS blog comment board!

2 replies

  1. This is excellent- I hadn’t heard of the hashtag before, but will definitely check it out. I can see a lot of overlap between libraries, archives and museums on some of these issues. If we can’t engage the public, all our hard work on collections policies and the rest are for naught.


  2. As a recent MLIS grad who also minored in Museum Studies as an undergrad, I really appreciate this article. Both libraries and museums are places of learning and information processing; though they both approach this end goal in different ways, I believe the two institutions have a lot to learn from each other- specifically how to make our spaces more public and fun, and how to break out of our rather stuffy images. Thank you to Olivia and Celia for the eye-opening interview!


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